Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fight or Flight

This one is for fun- a biological hypothetical.  "Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?"  This question was put forward to President Obama in August on  I am happy to announce that he stuck to the business of the country rather than taking a lot of time pondering it.  A story in The Atlantic assumed that task for him.

The article considers a lot of variables.  Einstein, pictured here, may be the world's smallest horse that isn't a dwarf; and he is cute.  So as President, would you rather be seen on the evening news stomping a hundred small cute horses or shooting a giant duck (in season of course- we are still naturalists).

Now which is the most dangerous?  Horses are herbivores and tend to run from danger.  Ducks can be pugnacious and loud, and they are omnivores so a small (to them) mammal might look delicious.

The there are the physical characteristics.  John Eadie, an expert on avian ecology at the University of California, Davis, lists eight characteristics that would make the horse-sized duck the more dangerous opponent.  Its powerful gizzard could crush you and your weapons.  Even the fact that ducks lack the intellect could make it easy to outsmart them.
"Ducks are dumb. There is a record of some research in which half of a duck's brain was removed surgically ... with no discernible change in its behavior," Eadie explained, though he didn't see that aspect of its biology as an unalloyed advantage. "The flip side, is that in battle, I could literally destroy half the terror-duck's brain and it would have no impact on the battle. Nothing worse than a dumb opponent who doesn't know how to quit."
Flying steamer duck- Wikimedia
But just how aggressive can a duck be?  You might be surprised if you ran up against a Flying Steamer Duck, Tachyeres patachonicus .  An article at describes this impressive aggressor which lives in the Falklands and Patagonia.
"Steamer-ducks are notoriously pugnacious. Heavy-bodied and robust compared to other ducks, they have tough skin, a massive head and neck, and are equipped with keratinized orange knobs on the proximal parts of their carpometacarpi. Both sexes use these wing knobs in territorial fights and displays. Fighting males grab each other by the head or neck and then whack each other vigorously with the wing knobs, and fights can last for up to 20 minutes. Both birds sometimes submerge during the fight, and come up still fighting.
An aggressive steamer-duck approaches an ‘enemy’ by either adopting the so-called submerged sneak posture (only the top of the head and back and tail tip are visible), or by ‘steaming’ noisily across the surface (the ducks charge at speed, throwing their wings like the paddles of a paddle-steamer, hence the vernacular name)."
They will actually attack and kill other duck species.  Why they do this isn't clear but this violent attack apparently excites the female Steamer, possibly bringing her to a full boil.  And why are they called the "Flying" Steamer Duck?  Because they are the only variety of steamer duck which can fly.  But even here there are exceptions.
"What makes the species especially interesting is that some males within the species actually have wing loadings that are too high to permit flight, and are thus flightless. So, within a single species, there are both flighted and flightless individuals. It is almost as if the species is poised in the transition to full flightlessness."
All of this is good news for the White House.  It is 6,344 miles from Washington D.C. as the crow flies, and these steamer ducks aren't crows and it is longer around the curve of Brazil.  It is unlikely that President Obama will make the trip to Stanley, Falkland Islands so he is probably safe.  On the other hand, if I were Great Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, I would be a little concerned, and might take up duck hunting in preparation for the next Falkland crisis.

Special thanks to Dr. Chris Barnhart for pointing me to the story.

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